AUGUSTA, Maine — For the first time in years, cigarette sales in Maine are up as measured by the sale of the tax stamps that must be on every pack sold in the state. In the first six months of this year, tax stamp sales were up 5 percent.
“This is the first time that anybody at [Maine] Revenue Services can remember where we actually had an increase in our cigarette stamp sales, and it has been a 5 percent increase since the start of the calendar year and that is unheard of,” said Mike Allen, research director at MRS.
He said for years there has been a decrease in tax stamp sales of 1 or 2 percent every year, but for the budget year that ended June 30, sales were up 1 percent over a year ago.
“No one in the office could remember when we had an increase, year over year,” he said.
Anti-smoking advocates say it adds to the evidence that after years of decline, smoking is on the increase in Maine and there need to be further efforts to discourage the habit.
“We had the survey results released earlier this year, in January, that showed teen smoking went up,” said Ed Miller, vice president of the American Lung Association New England office. “This is another indicator, I think, that smoking is on the increase.”
The study showed teen smoking in Maine increased to 18 percent from 14 percent in the previous year. A decade ago the teen smoking rate was 40 percent.
“We should do what we can to reduce smoking and that means setting the price to discourage smoking,” he said. “That has been shown to be the most effective way to reduce smoking particularly among the young.”
Several groups, including the American Lung Association, unsuccessfully urged lawmakers to raise the taxes on all tobacco products earlier this year.
Miller said it is hard to determine whether there are more smokers, or whether smokers in the state are buying more of their cigarettes in Maine. Allen agrees. He said in discussions with his counterparts in New Hampshire, they are reporting a decrease in sales after they increased their tax on cigarettes.
“We also talked with some wholesalers and they reported a decrease in sales in New Hampshire and an increase in Maine,” he said.
Attorney General Janet Mills said there has also been an increase in enforcement of Maine tobacco laws by her office and that has contributed to a decrease in cigarettes obtained by Mainers through illegal means.
“Our enforcement efforts against black marketers, Internet sales, mail order, single cigs and e-cigs, etc., as well as the fed PACT Act, have had some impact,” she wrote in an e-mail.
The federal PACT act governs the sale of cigarettes over the Internet. It bans the postal service from delivering cigarettes unless all federal, state, local or tribal tobacco taxes have been paid and the appropriate tax stamps affixed to each pack.
It also requires the sellers to register with the state where they are based and make periodic reports to state tax officials and check the age and ID of customers when they purchase tobacco.
Miller said lawmakers should consider both the survey results and the sales figures and acknowledge that more should be done to discourage smoking. He said smoking-related diseases are still a major health problem in the state.
“You’ve got to realize that the tobacco industry never stops marketing,” he said. “And it’s clear they are targeting young people.”
Miller suggested the state needs a broad campaign aimed at countering the industry advertising as well as a per-pack price increase to deter smokers. Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Dora Mills said the apparent increase in smoking is a “wake-up call” that the public health community needs to rec-ognize.
“A lot of other health issues in the last few years has taken a lot of attention away from tobacco,” she said. “We still need to keep our eye on the single biggest underlying cause of death and disability in this state and across the country, which is tobacco.”
Mills said the state funds a number of local programs aimed at discouraging smoking and helping smokers to quit. She said contracts for those programs are up for review, and she wants to explore whether some need changes to address the apparent increase in smoking.
“We need to be changing our strategies to really address the needs of those that are still smoking at high rates,” she said.